Swearin’ like to go hard. I saw them play along with Waxahatchee (so this was the sisters Crutchfield bill) in Portland this past fall, and it was one of the best concerts I’ve been to in a long time. Swearin’ play songs that are fast and loud and energetic, and catchy—some of their stuff reminds me of early Weezer B-sides, the ones that emphasized the power over the pop side of the spectrum. This is a band made for late spring/early summer. Who knows when you’ll get a chance to listen to this music again in the proper context, because, for all we know, the climate might make a left turn and gently usher us into a new ice age (optimistic) or we will melt (realistic). Swearin’ is a band for the NOW, for the moment. Hold on tight.
Over the last decade or so, I have occasionally put up a Labor Day mix (actually the same mix a couple times–since the end of summer is such a downer, it’s the ‘Dentist’s Office’ mix, which is all soft, numbing, deathly anodyne rock), but I don’t think I’ve ever done a Memorial Day mix. So here’s that.
The only organizing theme for this one is ‘songs that you might have heard at a mid-80s family barbecue/company picnic.’ I can attest to having personally heard and danced to all of these songs when I was a kid (at my dad’s company’s picnic/summer celebration), much as it pains me to say that, and particularly in the case of the Don Henley song, because that one is–like much of Don’s work–unspeakably gross (c.f. my previous self-therapy re: Don Henley). I have some vivid and bizarre memories of drunk adults going fucking wild for “Mony Mony.” Same with “Walk Like An Egyptian,” a truly awesome song anyway and one that started an insane dance (though I don’t know how long that lasted. Not long, I would guess).
The only song in here I actually love is Steely Dan’s Reelin’ In The Years, which, jeeze, I don’t know if it gets much better–if you fantasize about ferocious riffs, or ever say the word ‘riffs’ to anyone, you will love this song. Fagen’s lyrics are so good here too, just a great mix of cutting observations, smiling wistfulness, etc. Every couple years I’m reminded of how much I love this band and how rich and freaky their music is. Anyway, while caught in a Steely Dan fugue the other night, I stumbled across this amazing video of them playing Reelin’ In The Years live (they look impossibly young–also this was when they still had David Palmer with the band, before Fagen took over all vocal duties), and they’re introduced by Bill Cosby, who is casually smoking a cigar. Check it out:
With the announcement this week that the Blood Brothers would be reuniting for a show at FYF Fest in L.A., I realized there is a possibility that I might be able to see a band that I’ve been listening to for more than a decade play an actual show. Blood Brothers are one of my favorite bands, though it must be said I came late to the game–I only started listening to them with Crimes, and that was mostly due to Yancey Strickler’s evangelism on his old, pre-Kickstarter blog, Get Up Stand Up. Peacock Skeleton with Crooked Feathers was the first song of theirs I ever heard, and I was sold after one listen. To celebrate the temporary (?) reformation of Blood Brothers, I thought I’d put together a little mix of some of their songs that I like best. This is definitely not a career survey, as it’s pretty heavy on Crimes and Young Machetes, but these songs are, I think, probably among their most approachable and most developed–i.e., if you’ve never listened to Blood Brothers before, this is a gentle way to ease yourself into their discography (this mix relies more on their ‘softer’ songs, though not many of their songs can really be called ‘soft’.). Also below is a little thing I wrote about Giant Swan, back in ’06 or whenever, which is still probably my favorite Blood Brothers song (and one of my favorite songs ever, truth be told).
‘Giant Swan’ not only achieves a nice synthesis between the noisy/hard aspects of the band and their more adventurous tendencies, but it also features some heartbreakingly gorgeous lyrics- and that’s what really got me. The closest touchstone I can some up with is probably Delmore Schwartz’s (unbearably sad and beautiful) short story “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities”- ‘Giant Swan’ is framed in a similar way, with the narrator watching a play about his own life, and the whole song is seeping this sort of weird regret and shame (it’s almost like embarrassment at being/having been alive), which the Blood Brothers explore with their customarily grisly enthusiasm. E.g.: “all the girls you wished you’d fucked make a guest appearance”, “your mouth is cheap and your hair is shoddy”, “strip down to your vulgar skeleton”, “a pound of cocaine under the bed where the call girls perform their services”. And then there are other phrases, oddly affecting, that take a different tack entirely: “if your heart’s a diamond, what’s the fucking price?”, “the sun’s like a painting of your whole life/you scratch at the canvas, but you can’t get inside”, and towards the end of the song, the devastating “all the things you wished you’d said are buried with your X’ed out head” (the band is very good at getting at the kernel of things that are unpleasant or uncomfortable).
Musically, ‘Giant Swan’ is reminiscent of the “Crimes” B-side ‘Metronomes’, with a kind of slinking, vampy mood dominating the beginning of the song (that bass is perfect). Johnny Whitney’s vocal performance is what makes the track though- he coos, screams, croons, gasps, shades each word with a hundred different tics and quavers. Oh, and that breakdown- 3 minutes in, there’s a minute of anguished, twisted, wrought music that’s more exhilarating than anything I’ve heard in a while. “Young Machetes” is full of moments like the ones in ‘Giant Swan’, where the band switches from gruesome to poetic imagery, often in the space of a syllable or two, and manages to make abrasively melodic, sandpapery, catchy songs.
Confession: this was one of the first songs I remember downloading from Napster, along with the rest of the Godzilla (1998) soundtrack. Old as that sentence makes me feel, it doesn’t actually seem that long ago. I was eighteen and in my first year of college and technology had delivered, genie-like, the possibility of free access to almost-unlimited music. I was not discerning, to say the least. The Godzilla soundtrack is probably–no, definitely–better than the movie it accompanied, but it’s still only a decent soundtrack overall. Though there were a few songs on there that deserve to be remembered more fondly than they are: the Jamiroquai song (Deeper Underground) was pretty catchy and weird, the Wallflowers’ version of Heroes was totally tolerable, and even Puff’s Kashmir-riffed song was all right! Not the best soundtrack songs in the world, but far from the worst.
Ben Folds Five’s Air, though, is actually quite good. Like a few of the songs from “Whatever and Ever Amen,” there is a kind of diffuse melancholy in Air, mysterious tragedy, yearning, etc., which to me was utterly in harmony with what I was feeling as an eighteen year old on his own for the first time. Put this on a mix with some live Radiohead songs (Big Ideas, back when it was still called just that and, say, the old version of Motion Picture Soundtrack) and you’re all set to pursue the business of brooding silently. Something about this song in particular served to inoculate me against my intense homesickness by helping me summon up memories of home (where in my last year of high school I had listened to “Whatever and Ever Amen” almost every night before going to sleep), and eventually I got over all that shit and did whatever it was I did that year (failed Econ, mostly; also pined for a willowy girl). This is still a wonderful song.
Sketch out your worst fears on a napkin, along with your phone number, and leave the napkin in a bar. See who calls. Who would be intrigued by a list that begins with “falling to death from a water slide” and ends with “falling in love with stable mediocrity?” Someone could call, maybe even someone you could count on. A person who might steer you away from those fears, or–there’s always this possibility–steer you into those fears, less a paternalistic life coach and more of an amused enabler. The life coach would wrap you up, keep you safe. The enabler would buy you old XXXL ‘no fear’ t-shirts on Ebay and make you wear them to fancy parties, where you would have to explain that, yes, the shirt is correct, you possess no fear, you no longer quail in the presence of water slides and you have embraced your manifold mediocrities, and sure, you are perfectly willing to try the deviled eggs, why not, everything deserves a second chance, and life is too short to hold a grudge.